Greek Debt, Nazi Reparations, and a Fair Shake
With the Greek parliamentary elections only a few days away, incumbent politicians are clamoring for a foothold on victory once again. In a high profile vote recently, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the sitting parliament rekindled the old World War 2 reparations fires against a Germany Greeks blame for painful austerity measures imposed in return for bailout loans during its financial crisis. For the Greek people, the “German” issue could be the breakpoint whether or not the ruling Syriza party hangs on to power.
Germany’s Staggering Responsibility
By way of background on the Nazi reparations owed Greece, Hitler’s forces ravaged the southern European country savagely from the time of occupation in 1941 until the final garrisons surrendered in May and June of 1945, long after Berlin fell. Under the Nazi swastika, Greece’s Jewish population was almost eradicated, 80% of the country’s industry was destroyed, 25% of the natural resources were plundered, and over 11% of the population died because of Hitler’s occupation. The full list of atrocities, the reprisals, and whole villages wiped out, and the genocide practiced by the Nazi forces cannot be listed here. The level of barbarism is in reality, impossible to convey, even if you speak with one of the remaining eyewitnesses (as I have). In order that the Greek claim is understood properly, it’s necessary to grasp the German intentions during the occupation.
Forget for a moment that Greek politicians are bounding a political/economic football to get reelected. The debt the Germans truly owe is what the world should focus on here. Make no mistake, Hitler’s Axis war machine was not just holding territory for fascism’s further expansion. The Germans were intent on exterminating Hellenism altogether. The Jewish “solution” was not the only holocaust being perpetrated in WW 2. We’re talking about the so-called “Master Race,” after all. This document from the Hellenic Department of Reconstruction I found in the Stanford University archives discusses the Nazi plan to eliminate Hellenism once and for all.
Looking at the pure economic losses without the human or potential costs estimated, in today’s dollars the damage to Greece’s infrastructure alone was in the tens of billions. Take the roads the Germans destroyed as the pulled out of Greece in retreat. According to the Hellenic Department of Reconstruction report, the cost to repair the damaged roads alone back then exceeded 51 million dollars. That sum today is in excess of 711 million in 2018 dollars. This sum does not include the cost to replace the destruction of almost every bridge and tunnel in the Greek road network or damage to other infrastructure in the network. The damage to railway tunnels, bridges, and the literal theft of Greek rolling stock by the Germans and Bulgarians. All of Greece’s major ports were reduced to ashes. Over 70% of Greece ships were either sunk, pirated by the Axis, or lost to other causes because of the German occupation. In 1945 dollars the estimated cost to replace was a bit over $512 million, which is roughly 7.14 billion in 2018 dollars. The Germans and their allies destroyed over $7.5 billion in buildings (2018 prices), 60-80% of all cars, buses, and trucks in the country, and decimated Greece’s forests to the tune of over $1 billion (adjusted for 2018 inflation), and stole over $8 billion (2018) of the Greek people’s livestock while tens of thousands of people starved across the country. I cannot get into Greek hydraulic, telephone, or other public works here, but suffice it to say every facet of Greek existence suffered unimaginably because of the Axis occupation. As for the human cost, there is no monetary equivalent to whole villages being exterminated, for children watching their parents machine-gunned or tortured, or for human slavery on a scale the Romans could not have imagined. The massacre at Kalavryta saw over 1,400 men women and children slaughtered like pigs by German Army’s 117th Jäger Division. Another example was the executions of civilians in the village of Alikianos near Chania in reprisal against Cretans trying to fight off German paratroopers. In this instance, Reichsmarschall Goering himself ordered Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander of the XI Air Corps to carry out reprisals. In all, 197 adult males were rounded up and shot, some in front of their families, simply for defending their island. It’s a horrible footnote, but neither General Student or the other commander involved served any significant prison time for their war crimes.
And this was but one of hundreds of atrocities carried out by the various Wehrmacht, Italian, and Bulgarian units occupying Greece. And to add insult to grievous injury, Hitler even forced the Greeks to pay for their own misery. In 1942, the Greek Central Bank was forced to give a zero-interest loan 476 million Reichsmark loan to the Nazi regime to pay for being occupied. That sum today would be around $1.7 billion (2015). Greece suffered over 400,000 casualties in the war, and the Nazi regime looted untolled billions in raw materials, food, priceless antiquities, gold bullion, and other riches from the sacked country. As a result of the so-called Great Famine, tens of thousands starved to death while Hitler’s Reichminister, the notorious Hermann Göring commented about concerns the Greeks would die as a result of food shortages and the British blockade:
“…This continual concern for the aliens must come to an end once and for all… I could not care less when you say that people under your administration are dying of hunger. Let them perish so long as no German starves.”
Greeks Say “No” to Deniability
I could go on for 200 pages describing and cataloging the German debt to the Greek people, but this will not make the Germans pay up. In fact, it’s a certainty they never intend to. A measly 115 million mark payment back in 1960 (224 million in 2017 dollars) from West Germany was supposed to clear the slate. Furthermore, a 1990 treaty orchestrated by the reunified Germany with the four “great powers” of WW 2 is what Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ministers excuse themselves with today. On the legality (or lack thereof) of the so-called the Two Plus Four Agreement, the Germans absolve themselves of all financial responsibility for Greek reparations. And yes, the 2 + 4 refers to East and West Germany making a treaty with the USA, France, the UK, and the then Soviet Union. For me, this should have been some more “plusses” in the international agreement.
A snapshot of Athens in 1941 will reveal for you the epic and ghastly barbarism of the Nazis in Greece. By some estimates, as many as 1,000 people per day were dying of starvation beneath western civilization’s most prized antiquities. Under the Acropolis, the citizens of one of human kind’s greatest cities were emaciated by hunger and cruelty. There are no accurate figures for how many Greeks died of hunger during the Axis occupation. Some experts put the death toll at above 300,000 across Greece. But the “great powers” and the “new” Germany deny the past as if the Nazi holocaust never happened. Israel got $14 billion, and Jewish individuals received on the order of $70 billion in German reparations as of the 2000s. Back at the end war, the allies snatched Nazi stocks in Allied nation companies worth in excess of 300 billion in 2017 dollars. Greece got nothing at the time because of the insane Marshall Plan which lined western banker pockets and made Greece and other nations humble debtor nations later on. Then there’s the idea today’s Greek debt situation is really an economic war to finish off the Hellenic Republic, once and for all.
The leadership of Greece, the western banking elites, the IMF and World Bank, they are complicit in the sacking of the Hellenic people’s country this time. The Iris Times frames the situation in Greece today well with:
“On the other, the long-term effects of the austerity programs over the past eight years are so deep-rooted that poverty as a way of life (“queueing for a living”) is the real prospect for a huge percentage of the population.”
The Egregious Balance Sheet
Where Greece’s debt is concerned, the biggest lenders were Germany and its bankers. They are the ones who have championed austerity measures most loudly. These Frankfurt and Luxembourg sharks tried to make the world believe starving the average Greek to death would improve Greece’s comparative advantage in the global marketplace. But here on Crete, as elsewhere, all anybody sees are middle-class Germans headed to the much cheaper all-inclusive beach resorts. At least one German minister put it so delicately, “sell off your islands to pay your debt.” While others suggest Greece is a German colony and that everything including the Acropolis should go up for sale. Ironically, these early debt relief suggestions are exactly what’s happening today.
The Germans, in particular, are making strident moves to take full advantage of Greece’s misfortune. I’ve called the strategy a new version of Unternehmen Merkur, or in English “Operation Mercury,” when Hitler launched the biggest airborne invasion in history against Crete. Seumas Milne, at The Guardian, called the new blitzkrieg a “crucifixion” of the Greeks and an end to the EU. Today, Milne’s words resonate more loudly, since “Greece has been turned into an economic “protectorate”, a place where all key decisions are taken by foreign governments and unelected EU bureaucrats.” This apt labeling Milne, who’s now the UK Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, labels unified Germany for what it truly is, a more pale shade of self-interested power still exacting a human toll. At least, this is my view. As a final note, in 1952 Germany’s post-war debt was chopped by 60%, and the debt the country owed from World War I was reduced by more than half as well. So, chopping down or even totally forgiving Greece’s debt would not be an unprecedented move. In 1945 German reparations were initially valued at $320 billion, which is over 4 trillion dollars today. The world gave the Nazis a break, so why can’t Greece get one?
Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe, he’s an author of the recent bestseller “Putin’s Praetorians” and other books. He writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”